August 8, 2012, was a special day for Deogratias Niyizonkiza and a red-letter day for the community of Kigutu. Deo, as Niyizonkiza is known to everyone in Burundi, from the president to the adoring villagers of his colline, had been rattling around in an ambulance accompanied by an army commando, a curator, an emergency-room physician, a sociologist, two soldiers with Kalashnikovs and a literature professor (myself). That morning the minister of higher education had asked him to found a research institute, and by evening a national museum was in the works. Such happy developments provide a measure of hope in a country where the medical and educational infrastructures are in shambles. After decades of genocidal war and the colonialism that incited it, Burundi provides ample scope for a visionary reformer like Deo. Through his passion, drive and genius for community leadership, aided by the generosity of international donors inspired by his plans, it has taken Deo just six years to revolutionize healthcare in Kigutu. Now he is taking on education—and more.
Deo calls Kigutu “this elegant mountain,” though at first glance it looks no different from any of the forested peaks edging the Rift Valley of East Africa. Here, women in vivid drapery balance tall baskets on their heads as they walk under rainbow golf umbrellas. From afar, they look like statuesque color bursts gliding up and down red paths in the forest. Oil palms tower overhead; banana trees poke up like tattered windmills; cassava leaves float like magic carpets on implausibly slender stems. In this landscape, unspoiled by power lines or pavement, the human cost hardly registers. The ruddy pigment of the soil tints the shifts of children too poor to own a pen for school, never mind a toy. They subsist day to day, malnourished and uneducated. The ravishing beauty of the scenery induces a sinister double vision—not at all what Deo has in mind when he marvels at the elegance of this mountain.
Kigutu lies in southwest Burundi, a country of just 10 million souls, bordered by Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania. Picture a pocket of misery lost in the shadows of Heart of Darkness, Hotel Rwanda and Kony 2012. None of these mega-myths mention Burundi, but all of them tell its story. Conrad’s corrupt “emissaries of light” in the Congo behave no worse than the Belgian colonialists who ravaged Ruanda-Urundi after World War I. Hacking away at body parts and belief systems, the Belgians found it useful to encourage hatred between Hutus and Tutsis.
In 1962, national independence brought deliverance from the Belgians, but not from racial violence—until, in 1994, the massacres erupted that Hollywood memorialized in Hotel Rwanda. That genocide lasted four months in Rwanda; in Burundi it continued for thirteen years. An estimated 15 percent of the population was murdered or displaced, and every industry was halted except for Primus Beer, “la fierté burundaise.” The peace declared in 2005 included no meaningful reconciliation process, and today no fewer than forty-four parties compete in allegedly democratic elections. Precious little reconstruction has occurred in any but the wealthiest enclaves of the capital, Bujumbura.
Why is there no Kony 2012–style campaign drawing Internet millions to the rescue of this devastated nation, a country that still lies in ruins after wars that ended eight years ago? Where small children stagger home with gallon canisters of water or drop out of 100-student classrooms, to the relief of their untrained teachers? Where traditional healers make fortunes cutting the uvulas out of newborn infants without bothering with anesthesia or sterilized knives, and schizophrenics writhe on dirt floors, their hands bound behind their backs with meticulously plaited grasses? The answer is obvious: no one has heard of the place. Burundi is a disaster of mythic proportions lacking a myth. And with opinion-makers both in Africa and abroad insisting that tales of misery are not the way to write about Africa nowadays, it is unlikely to acquire one. Burundi needs a different sort of story altogether.